How to inspire a love of movement from an early age

girl playing basketball

Nurturing a lifelong love of movement and physical activity in children is a goal of many parents and caregivers. Unfortunately, less than 24% of American children ages 6 to 17 get 60 minutes of physical activity daily, which is the recommended amount for kids.

The good news? When children develop a love for something like movement early on, it usually sticks with them for life. To ensure your child gets enough exercise as they get older, you need to set a foundation for a lifelong appreciation for movement in their early years.

Discover how a love of movement starts at home, get ideas for inspiring young kids to get moving and enjoy it, and learn why physically active children grow up to be active adults.

The foundation you set with young children is critical to their overall health.

Denise Woodall-Ruff, MD, Pediatrician, and Director of the Healthy Weight & Wellness Center at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital, says that children model the actions of their parents and other major role models in their lives when it comes to a multitude of lifestyle behaviors, including physical activity and fitness habits.

“A child that observes a parent or role model engage in a healthy level of physical activity is more likely to accept these behaviors for themselves,” she says. “Similarly, a child that observes their caregiver sit on the couch for prolonged periods and engage in sedentary behaviors is more likely to accept these behaviors as their norm,” adds Woodall-Ruff.

Natasha Trentacosta, MD, Pediatric and Adult Sports Medicine Specialist and Orthopedic Surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, agrees. “Parents, caregivers, and educators are role models for young children, as kids look up to these people to set an example of how to navigate life,” she says.

“Children who regularly see their parents partaking in sports and fitness activities are more likely to do it themselves — this is especially true now as screen time is increasing among young children and physical activity is decreasing,” says Trentacosta. Establishing healthy habits early in life will stay with them as they grow.

The key to inspiring a love of movement from an early age is to keep the focus on having fun. Just like adults, kids are less likely to get excited about something they don’t enjoy. Plus, if they’re having fun, they’ll probably want more of it, which gives them time to practice skills and improve their abilities.

“Every child is unique, and some gravitate toward exercise and physical activity more than others,” says John Gallucci Jr., DPT, ATC, and CEO of JAG-ONE Physical Therapy.

That’s why it’s essential to find activities that your child enjoys and turn them into activities that encourage them to move more. “Children, especially young kids, should not feel as if exercise is a chore,” says Gallucci.

As kids get older and more involved in organized sports, keep in mind that some kids love structured sports and competition, but many others do not. Keep a broader definition of movement that includes walks with the family, dancing in the living room, tree climbing, yoga, or any other things they enjoy.

Getting kids interested in movement and physical activity at a young age increases the likelihood that they’ll reap all of their benefits sooner, and their interest in exercise will likely continue to build as they grow.

Here are some tips to help you inspire a love of movement from an early age.

Make sure the activity is age-appropriate

Asking a 3-year-old to participate in a family game of badminton might not be the best way to encourage movement. However, lowering the net and giving them a preschool-size racket with a large ball increases success and improves the fun factor.

Focus on motor skills

Developing gross motor skills is critical for children, especially preschoolers. These skills help kids with balance, strength, coordination, and reaction time.

If you have toddlers and preschool-age kids, keep activities centered around kicking or throwing a ball, hopping, climbing, obstacle courses, or riding a trike or bike with training wheels.

Be sure they wear helmets and other protective gear when riding bikes, and adequately supervise them when they’re climbing or using moving toys or devices.

Make active toys available

When choosing indoor and outdoor toys, include items that require active play, such as balls for young children and bikes and scooters for older kids. Climbing toys are an excellent choice for toddlers, preschool, and school-age children, just make sure they are age-appropriate.

Aim for more active toys than passive toys at home. When your child asks for a new toy, have them donate a passive toy in exchange for a new active toy. This tips the scales in favor of movement and teaches them that less is more.

Encourage free play

Free play is how kids learn about themselves and their environment. It’s also an excellent time to sneak in some exercise.

Make sure to include several free-play opportunities throughout the day. To keep the play active, encourage your child to go outdoors for 30 minutes and use their imagination to create an obstacle course or scavenger hunt, ride a bike or scooter, or play with balls and other outdoor toys.

“It is not totally unexpected to find so much of this stuff,” said Qian. “The idea is that the smaller things get, the more of them there are.”

Get active with your kids

Telling kids of any age to “get some exercise” does not always work. Yet, if you get active with your children, they’re more likely to want to participate. Plus, this can be a time-saver for working parents who want to exercise but struggle with being away from their kids outside of the workday.

Create an activity schedule

Woodall-Ruff recommends a weekly physical activity schedule with goals. This is something you should do together and post it in a common location. Decide — with your child — on a nonfood-related reward when they meet that goal.

Talk about fitness

If you want to inspire your kids to love movement, you need to teach them what it means. Look for opportunities to create a positive culture of fitness at home. Talk about your workouts, sports, and activities and how important they are in your life. At the dinner table, discuss food and how it fuels movement.

Turn chores into exercise

Pairing chores with active competitions accomplishes two things: your child completes a household task and they get exercise while doing it. If you have more than one child, turn chores into a competition that involves exercise.

For example, toddlers and preschool-age kids can race to see who can throw their laundry into the basket the fastest. Outside, make a competition out of picking up the yard or weeding the garden. Designate a section of the yard for each child (and parent) to clean up. The person who finishes first wins.

Let them choose the activity

Even young kids know what they like, and they certainly feel appreciated when you ask them about it. Let your child choose a few activities or sports they enjoy, and participate in them as a family.

Read a movement-inspired story

Bookstores and libraries are full of books that encourage movement in young children. Gather some of them and let your child choose two or three to bring home.Doing so will not only help them succeed in school and stay healthy in their school years but also help foster a love of movement throughout their entire life.

Source: Healthline